49ers vs. Seahawks: The key matchups

Matchups for the NFC championship game Sunday between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks at the CenturyLink Field:

When the 49ers (14-4) have the ball:

San Francisco runs the ball as well as anyone left in the playoffs, with RB Frank Gore (21) as the focal point, but QB Colin Kaepernick (7) as the wild card. The 49ers will try to establish something on the ground immediately behind a strong line led by left tackle Joe Staley (74) and guard Mike Iupati (77). That means plenty of Gore inside and even a bit outside, and Kaepernick using his speed - unmatched by any quarterback in the league - to get to the edge.

But Gore has struggled at Seattle, and the Seahawks command the line of scrimmage as well as any team, even San Francisco. They ranked seventh at stopping the run, with huge tackle Brandon Mebane (92) clogging the running lanes. Seattle’s other D-linemen, particularly Red Bryant (79) and Michael Bennett (72), are versatile and rugged.

If the 49ers can’t get the rushing game going, it lets Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner (54) and Bruce Irvin (51) get even more involved. It also means Bennett, DEs Chris Clemons (91) Cliff Avril (56) and Irvin will be more of a threat in the passing attack, although trapping and sacking Kaepernick is no easy chore.

Kaepernick struggled mightily in the Niners’ 29-3 loss at Seattle in September and has performed poorly at CenturyLink Field in both of his appearances. He’s a more mature player now and is 3-0 in road playoff games.

To get to 4-0 might require more use of his arm than coach Jim Harbaugh prefers. And that’s where the most intriguing matchups of this game will occur: San Francisco’s receivers against Seattle’s secondary.

WR Anquan Boldin (81) helped Baltimore beat the 49ers in last year’s Super Bowl, and he has had a superb season. Since WR Michael Crabtree (15) returned from a torn Achilles tendon, the 49ers haven’t lost, including a win over Seattle, and their air game has risen to another level. Throw in Vernon Davis (85), the best deep threat in the league among tight ends, and the Seahawks‘ terrific group of DBs will be heavily challenged.

All-Pros CB Richard Sherman (25) and S Earl Thomas (29) are elite in coverage and will make for a juicy encounter with San Francisco’s receivers. Sherman led the league with eight interceptions, Thomas had five. The other starting safety, Kam Chancellor (31), is almost as good, especially standing out in run defense, and CB Byron Maxwell (41) has been a real find since Brandon Browner (39) was suspended by the NFL.

When the Seahawks (14-3) have the ball:

Seattle’s offense has slumped in recent weeks, but it also has made big plays when needed. RB Marshawn Lynch (24) is Gore’s counterpart and comes off a great game vs. New Orleans: 140 yards and two touchdowns. He’s a similar-type runner and when in “Beast Mode,” he’s as tough as they come.

Then again, so is San Francisco’s run defense, led by do-everything tackle/end Justin Smith (94) and linebackers NaVorro Bowman, an All-Pro, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks. The Niners aren’t quite as deep up front as Seattle, but they make up for it with the NFL’s top linebacking corps.

Coach Pete Carroll is most comfortable when Lynch is on the loose, which makes things much easier for QB Russell Wilson (3). If the 49ers can control Lynch, who averaged 105 yards rushing at home against them, it puts a heavy onus on Wilson, whose passing numbers have been pedestrian recently.

Wilson, of course, is like Kaepernick with his escapability. While not as fast as Kaepernick, Wilson is more elusive and keeps passing plays alive with his uncanny scrambling. That’s something 49ers DBs Tramaine Brock (26), Eric Reid (35), Donte Whitner (31) and, if he’s recovered from a hamstring problem, Carlos Rogers (22) must be aware of at all times.

Like San Francisco, Seattle prides itself on an unrelenting physical offensive line. It’s anchored by center Max Unger (60) and tackle Russell Okung (76), but it’s also deep because injuries forced backups into action all season.

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